The difference between a flat white and a cappuccino

The difference between a flat white and a cappuccino lies primarily in the form of the milk that is used: microfoam or milk froth. Both are espresso drinks with steamed milk. The cappuccino includes steamed milk and milk froth. The flat white is espresso with a layer of micro-foamed but not frothy milk.

Hands frothing milk for coffee
The key difference between a flat white and a cappuccino lies in the ratio and consistency of the milk.

Microfoam is milk with very tiny air bubbles that thicken it and give it a smooth, almost meringue-like silkiness. Milk froth is more airy and less dense, due to its larger bubbles. When piled high atop a cappuccino, milk froth seems like it could be carried away on a strong wind.

Microfoam compared with frothed milk
In the flat white (left), the milk is mostly microfoam—steamed so that the bubbles are very small and give the milk a silky consistency. In the cappuccino (right), the steamed milk is topped with a layer of froth that is lighter and fluffier than microfoam. (© Katherine Lim | Flickr)

While the milk’s form is the most fundamental difference, the two drinks also have different origins. And some say they should be served in different vessels and different proportions.

Let’s get into these two popular café staples..

What is a flat white?

The flat white was invented in either New Zealand or Australian coffee shops during the 1980s.  Some trace the origins back to a problem with Australian cows’ milk that was preventing frothing, but New Zealanders claim the drink was simply invented as an alternative to lattes and cappuccinos. A flat white is sometimes referred to as a wet cappuccino. Starbucks began selling flat whites in their United Kingdom shops in 2010 and introduced the specialty drink in U.S. stores in 2015.

View of a flat white coffee from above
Microfoam mingles with espresso in a classic flat white. (© Alan Levine | Flickr)

In the simplest terms, a flat white is an espresso drink with a layer of steamed milk on top. The beverage has less milk than a latte or cappuccino, and the milk is less frothy. Some believe that a flat white must be served in a ceramic mug. Some insist it must be made with a ristretto or a short shot of espresso, to produce a more concentrated coffee flavour.

What is a cappuccino?

In the 1700s, Viennese coffee shops began serving a drink called the kapuziner, named after the rich brown-coloured robes of the Capuchin monks. The kapuziner was a coffee drink topped with whipped cream and spices. It became popular in Italy in the early 1900s when the espresso machine was invented, and Italian coffee culture was born. Sometime after World War II, Italians began to replace the whipped cream with frothy milk. Cappuccinos did not become popular in North America until the 1980s.

Three cups of cappuccino
Classic cappuccinos, loaded high with frothed milk.

A traditional Italian cappuccino is one-third espresso, one-third milk, and one-third milk froth.  The drink is made using an espresso machine and includes a double shot of espresso. This formula now varies greatly around the world. Many major coffee chains serve larger versions of the cappuccino with more milk and foam. In Italy, cappuccinos are generally consumed only in the morning and not after a meal.

Similarities and differences between a flat white and a cappuccino

In some coffee shops, the only difference between a flat white and a cappuccino is the size of the serving, but there should be differences in the ratio of espresso to milk and the handling of the milk. A cappuccino has less espresso than milk, and it should include steamed milk and milk froth. A flat white has a layer of micro-foamed milk that should be the consistency of velvet, and it should not have any frothy foam.

Infographic showing the difference between a cappuccino and a flat white

How to make a perfect flat white

A perfect flat white begins with a ristretto espresso shot. This is a shot of espresso pulled using half the usual amount of water, which results in a richer coffee flavour. A New Zealand flat white calls for two shots, but Australians typically use only one.

Ristretto shot
A concentrated ristretto shot is the building block of any good flat white or cappuccino.

Then you froth whole milk until it reaches a creamy, velvety consistency, but before it begins to foam. (We discuss how to create microfoam in our post about latte art.) Pour the milk on the top of the shots so that it folds into the drink. Serve in a small, tulip-shaped ceramic mug.

You can make a flat white at home if you have a milk frother or an espresso machine with a frothing wand. For best results, invest in a coffee bean grinder and make sure to use cold, fresh milk.

How to make a perfect cappuccino

The perfect Italian cappuccino is a shot of espresso and twice as much milk frothed to 65 C or 149 F. The milk is frothed in a separate container, usually a stainless steel pitcher, using the frothing wand of an espresso machine. Serve the cappuccino in a large round ceramic mug.  Add the espresso shot, pour some of the warmed milk into the mug and then top with the foamiest portion of the milk.

A cappuccino from above, with the milk froth clearly visible
The lighting here provides a good look at the texture of properly frothed milk on a cappuccino.

Both flat whites and cappuccinos should be made with high-quality coffee beans, ground fine for espresso. You do not need to use a particular type of bean, but remember that the flavour profile will be more intense in espresso drinks.

Flat white vs. cappuccino calories

A traditionally made cappuccino may have slightly fewer calories than a flat white. This is because half the milk volume in a cappuccino is foam. However, in many coffee shops, cappuccinos are served in larger portions than flat whites and these larger servings have more milk. You might be tempted to cut the calories and fat in both drinks by using skim or 2% milk, but this will adversely affect the texture of the beverage.

Macchiatos and lattes

Two other coffee drinks related to the flat white and cappuccino are macchiatos and lattes.  Lattes are made with a shot of espresso and hot milk. Sometimes a little foam is added. Most lattes have quite a bit more milk than a cappuccino or a flat white. In Italy, a caffe macchiato has the least amount of milk. The word “macchiato” means “stained,” and the drink is just a shot of espresso with a spot of milk.

A macchiato
A macchiato is an espresso with just a splash of milk. (© Scott Partee | Flickr)

Your tastes will determine which of these espresso drinks is your favourite. Now that you know the difference between a flat white and a cappuccino, you will likely order a flat white if you want more coffee flavour, or a cappuccino if you like a foamier, milkier drink. Remember that many coffee shops have altered these traditional recipes, so it is a good idea to ask how each of the beverages is prepared.

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